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Humans

Swedish Archaeologists Uncover Brutal 5th-Century Massacre

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Aliyah Kovner

Science Writer

clockApr 26 2018, 12:26 UTC

The skeleton of an adolescent killed during an apparent raid on the Sandby Borg ringfort at the end of the 5th century. Alfsdotter et al./Antiquity, 2018

Excavations from an Iron Age fort in modern-day Sweden revealed brutalized human remains and other macabre traces of a massacre that stopped a small Scandinavian community in its tracks some 1,500 years ago.

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Six years after the archaeological investigations began, the team has published a report of their findings in the journal Antiquity. Although only 6 percent of the site has been unearthed and analyzed, the evidence gathered thus far paints an unprecedently vivid picture of life – and death – in late 5th-century Europe, a turbulent period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Located on the island of Öland off the coast of southeast Sweden, the Sandby Borg ringfort resembled a large oval-shaped mound of grass and dirt encircled by crumbling stone before the archaeologists arrived. Hoping to preserve the contents of the site from recently spotted treasure hunters, the team slowly but surely revealed that the unassuming ruins belonged to a 5,000-square-meter (54,000-square-foot) village, containing 53 dwellings, enclosed by stone walls that once stood 4-5 meters (13-16 feet) high.

Within the first few years of the dig, a wealth of luxury items – including gilded brooches, fine glass beads, and imported ornaments – were indeed found at Sandby Borg, as were remnants of abundant food stores; proving that the residents were prosperous and thriving.

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Objects found in one of the Sandby Borg homes. Alfsdotter et al./Antiquity, 2018

That is, until an unknown group of attackers descended upon the once-idyllic village, killing some, if not all, of the residents in their homes and on the streets, leaving the bodies to decompose where they lay.

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As of now, remains from 26 children and adults have been found inside four houses and near the town center. Many of the remains bear signs of trauma inflicted by blows to the back and sides of the body and head – implying that the victims were caught by surprise and/or unable to fight back. 

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The skeletal remains of two individuals inside house 40. The remains of the young teenager are stretched out, with the feet on top of the pelvis of an adult man, suggesting that the teenager fell backward over the dead or dying adult. The adolescent (12-15 years old) displays perimortem blunt force trauma on the skull. Alfsdotter et al./Antiquity, 2018

The indiscriminate nature of the siege is further demonstrated by scattered bones from a 2 to 5-year-old child, a 1.5 to 3-month-old infant, and the remains of sheep, dogs, and a horse. It is possible that these victims died not from violence, but rather starvation or neglect soon afterward. Either way, the archaeological record confirms that no one came back for them.

Without written accounts of the event, it’s impossible to know the motivation behind this swift act of brutality. Yet due to the staggering number of valuable goods left behind, the authors conclude that the massacre was not simply "an act of outright plunder”, and is more likely to have been the result of political tensions.

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The fact that these commodities were not recovered by other locals after the armed force left, along with the fact that the well-built locale was not resettled, indicates to the team that this event made a lasting impact in the cultural memory of the area.

“I do find it most likely that the event was remembered and that it triggered strong taboos connected to the site, possibly brought on through oral history for centuries,” author Ludwig Papmehl-Dufay told The Guardian.


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  • Sweden,

  • massacre